I have failed to produce any ‘the best of 2022’, but if someone asked me now for my top 5 books I read last year, these three would be on that list. Interestingly enough, they all capture complicated mother-daughter relationships.
In Crying in H Mart (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️), Michelle Zauner, a writer and a musician in the Japanese Breakfast band, does it so thoughtfully that it made a profound impression on me. H Mart is an Asian supermarket chain where Zuauner goes to look for memories after her mother passes away. Born in the US to a Caucasian father and a Korean mother, the traditional food her mum prepared was always how she could connect with the Korean parts of her identity. Often cruel and critical, her mother expressed love through food. Now, Zauner is learning how to prepare it herself. She doesn’t hide that there is a lot of anger in her memories. But while recalling even the painful moments, the reconciliation that comes with it helps her heal. Through food, which symbolises ancestry and home, she unpacks her complicated relationship with her mother, recollecting stories with a meal at their centre. It is her way to overcome grief. As a result, Zauner rediscovers her identity and rebuilds a bond with her mother, only seemingly lost.
In Jennette McCurdy’s memoir, I’m Glad My Mum Died (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️), food is barely present as, among other unhealthy behaviours, her mother was also responsible for McCurdy’s eating disorders. Jennette was a child actress known for the Nickelodeon series ICarly and Sam and Cat, and anorexia was supposed to delay the onset of puberty, allowing her to remain a child actress for longer. A breakthrough in her career came when McCurdy was only six years old, after already long and meticulously designed preparations for her to become an actress. But acting had always been her mother’s dream, and McCurdy was merely a tool to fulfil it. ‘I don’t want to act anymore,’ she says, regretting it immediately, ‘Don’t be silly, you love acting. It’s your favourite thing in the world,’ Mom says in a way that makes it sound like a threat.”
McCurdy divides the book into Before and After. Her mother’s death marked a point when the oppressive control ended at 21. Until then, she controlled everything about her daughter’s life. She accompanied her even in the most intimate situations under the pretext of examining her breast and washing her hair under the shower. A successful Hollywood career allowed her to cover years of abuse and suffering. After all, the entertainment industry is an underpinning of the mistreatment of child actresses. McCurdy processes the magnitude and horror of her story with dark humour (see the cover). She writes in the short chapters using the simple matter of factly language as if trying to regain control over her life. There is no room for ambiguity here, which is already apparent from the title. For McCurdy, this book is an act of rebellion. Writing is the opposite of acting, above all. It is honest, private, empowering, and everything that her mother hated most. It is freedom.
Not long after I finished I’m Glad My Mum Died, I read a Polish edition of Vrány (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️) or Crows in English, a short novel by Petra Dvořáková, which similarly draws attention to the problem of abuse that plays out behind closed doors. A 12-year-old Basia, a so-called nice girl from a good home, only seemingly has everything one could ever want. On the surface, she is being taken care of and performs well at school, and her art teacher wants her to join additional classes to give her a chance to pursue her talents further. But deep down, Basia is everything but happy. She is belittled and reprimanded by her never satisfied mother, whose expectations she can never meet. It is a realistic depiction of mistreatment told in the child’s and the mother’s words. Dvořáková draws the reader’s attention to how hard it is for children to know what happens to them is wrong, how little they can do once they realise it, and that the alternative is not necessarily a good solution either. There is a heartbreaking scene in the book where Basia sits in a library where her mum works. While waiting, she reads an article about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and rips the page out from the magazine, only to be beaten up for it later. The ending is as shocking as it is abrupt, and I often go back to how it impacted me at the time.
The book has been a bestseller in the Czech Republic and Poland, and I can only hope it will receive even more international acclaim soon.
Both, Vrány and I’m Glad My Mum Died made me think of an interview I saw with Maisie Williams. It is an incredible story one would not expect to hear from the Game of Thrones child actress. On my radar (shelf), there is also a book Toxic Parents; Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy by Susan Forward, first published in 1989. It was Susan Forward who popularised the term toxic in relation to people with this book and often comes up on top of recommendations on the subject.